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Love’s Oven plans to take its baked goods to new markets in the near future. Photograph by Ehren Joseph

Weed Goes Gourmet

A Denver-based cannabis confectioner goes all in on flavor.

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You know you’re in a fast-moving business when your tattoos can’t keep up with your career developments. So it goes for Hope Frahm, corporate chef at Love’s Oven, a Denver-based cannabis bakery and confectionery with a growing line of edibles, drinkables, and, yes, powerful smokables. In 2014, the now nine-year-old company offered roughly eight baked goods. Today, the outfit sells more than 50 edible vehicles to get you high, soothe your aches, or simply chill you out. The swift uptick in offerings is part of the company’s effort to cater to a more discerning clientele and differentiate itself from other purveyors in town. That’s where Frahm comes in. It’s her job to make sure that no matter what delivery method you choose—a turtle brownie, a salted caramel, a red velvet cookie, or a s’mores brownie ice cream topping—your intoxication begins as deliciously as possible.

Frahm, a 34-year-old Oklahoma native, joined the green revolution after working corporate chef jobs in some of the most glittering kitchens in Las Vegas, specifically Wolfgang Puck’s and Thomas Keller’s. She left Sin City with a Denver-bound friend in 2013. Not long after their arrival in the Mile High City, she saw an ad on Craigslist that read: “Baker wanted for small-batch marijuana bakery in Denver.”

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Part of chef Hope Frahm’s job is to cook up new THC-laden treats. Photograph by Ehren Joseph

Love’s Oven was already in the medical marijuana business, but its owners understood the potential of the recreational market, which launched in the Centennial State on January 1, 2014. To compete in the land-grab-style fight for eager cannabis consumers, the company needed a chef with world-class skills to produce a product that would outperform the pot brownies everyone else was baking. Frahm was hired an hour after her first interview.

It didn’t matter that Love’s Oven’s new chef had zero experience working with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. Her Vegas experience set her apart; all she’d have to do was combine an important ingredient with the crowd-pleasing techniques she had mastered on the Strip. Once her new colleagues explained the intricacies of strains and infusions, Frahm began exploring the quirks of canna-butter.

From the start, Frahm was hooked. Her new mission—delivering euphoria via sweet treats—transformed her career and her life. She was so grateful to Love’s Oven for the opportunity, in fact, that she tattooed the company’s logo on her arm in 2014. Her homage, however charming, may have been a bit rash: Seeking an image upgrade, the marketing department changed the design 18 months later.

Joshua Nettles, one of four managing partners at Love’s Oven, is a serial entrepreneur, having launched six businesses in addition to his current gig. The 38-year-old understands the pains of launching a business, so when he says “starting and maintaining a cannabis business is excruciating,” you believe him. Regulatory changes. Public-opinion battles. Frustrating legislation. Waffling at the federal level. You manage it all well or your company fails. Which is why there’s nothing dazed or confused about Love’s Oven’s executive team. The company’s CEO, Peggy Moore, spent decades working for Fortune 500 company UnitedHealth Group, and Teresa Walz, another managing partner, learned the food business at Nestlé. Frahm is something of an overachiever as well, voluntarily making her kitchen Food and Drug Administration compliant, even though cannabis is illegal at the national level. Says Frahm: “We try to be what a cannabis company should look like.”

In the days, weeks, months, and years after recreational use was legalized, that commitment and focus led them to grow like, well, a weed right along with the go-go canna-biz. In fact, as one of the biggest pot bakeries in Colorado, Love’s Oven says it pulls between $3 million and $4 million in gross sales in a good year and tries to maintain a 20 percent profit margin for reinvesting in the business and buffering against dips in the market. Like, for instance, the slump that occurred in late 2017, when business fell by 30 percent. Nettles says his company wasn’t the only green outfit to feel the slowdown; Colorado Department of Revenue numbers confirm that, showing a similar statewide decline from July 2017 through the end of the year.

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There were plenty of reasons for the drop-off. In 2016, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts all voted to legalize recreational marijuana, which meant that if you wanted to host a pot-steeped bachelor party, a Rocky Mountain high was no longer the only attractive option. Other numbers that may have played a role: Before recreational cannabis became legal in Colorado, there were 67 companies licensed to produce edibles in Denver; today, there are roughly 189. The number of dispensary licenses in the city has gone from 723 active medical marijuana licenses to 1,122 active marijuana licenses (both medical and recreational) in the same time frame. Cannabis went from prohibited to ubiquitous, which is a problem if you’re trying to turn a profit on a $2 turtle brownie bite.

In response, Love’s Oven set a goal to cut its costs by 10 percent, reorganized its staff of 28 to make each employee more autonomous and accountable, and made process improvements—like installing laser cutters and printers for packaging baked goods and switching to an automated labeling process. The tweaks allowed Love’s Oven to turn around most orders from dispensaries in five days. Additionally, the company decided that if it was going to survive—and thrive—in a saturated market, it would need to expand to other markets and learn to sell to a widely diverging edibles audience, from newbies to foodies to bargain shoppers. Frahm, her industrial mixer in tow, would lead the way.

To convert tetrahydrocannabinolic acid—a nonpsychoactive compound found in cannabis sativa—into THC, the chemical that does affect your mind, you need to add heat. Potheads can do that by firing up a joint, firing up a vape pen, or firing up an oven. That last option is chef Frahm’s specialty.

Baking wasn’t her first love, though. Automotive repair was—until the moment she was working under a car, the jack shifted, and she reached out in a panic to stabilize the chassis. Instead, she dislodged the radiator hose, which sprayed hot antifreeze everywhere. She received burns over 30 percent of her body, including her taste buds.

To pay her medical bills after the accident, Frahm began cleaning homes in Las Vegas—and she thanked her clients by baking for them. “It’s one way you can always make people happy,” she says. As it turned out, baking also made Frahm happy, a revelation that inspired her to complete an associate’s degree from the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Las Vegas. Then she began working her way through giant casino kitchens. She specialized in French pastries—macarons, éclairs, croissants—all without being able to taste anything she baked. “There are more ways to experience foods than by taste,” she says. “I just moved on to the other ones: the way they smell, their textures, how they look.”

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Her current kitchen, tucked into an industrial area on the western fringe of the Baker neighborhood, is indeed a sensory experience, even if you can’t dip into the stash. (Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division demands accountability from seed to sale, so Frahm is the stingiest baker ever: no hands in the cannabis cookie jar.) But there are other pleasures to be had, specifically at the butter-infusion station, where up to 10,000 cannabis goodies are born every week. In her five years with Love’s Oven, Frahm has become something of a mad scientist, tweaking and re-tweaking her methods of trimming, mashing, and heating cannabis so that THC and other compounds suffuse the butter in a way Betty Crocker never foresaw. After all that experimenting, her canna-butter is now about 10 percent THC by weight (up from two to five percent when she started), which means she can adjust the ratio of canna-butter to regular butter. In short: better flavor, less funk.

Frahm twists the lid off a half-gallon glass bottle and offers a sniff of the golden, honeylike liquid therein. Although a quart of cannabis butter is worth upward of $20,000, the scent conjures lower-rent days. A combination of Saturday night dorm room and the Summer of Love greets the olfactory glands, a testament to the redolent “terpenes”—organic compounds responsible for the aroma of each strain—that inhabit the infused butter. Frahm diplomatically says cannabis has a “distinct” flavor. “People have been infusing butters and oils since Jesus,” she says. “I love that we’re working with simple ingredients like butter, rather than chemical processes, to separate out the THC. That makes all the difference with the taste of our products.”

Love’s Oven’s red velvet and chocolate-chip cookies. Photograph by Ehren Joseph

During these uncertain times, flavor is everything. “Seventy-five percent of our business is driven by the product itself,” Nettles says. (The other 25 percent: savvy distribution and marketing.) That’s why Love’s Oven has been so obsessed with what Colorado palates want. Centennial Staters are done with the “I’ll take anything!” green grab that electrified the market after recreational cannabis went legal. Now many people want the taste of weed to be tamed, and because of Frahm’s advances with her canna-butter processes, the Love’s Oven line exudes bakery goodness rather than rank weediness. The company won 2016’s best edible award, based on recommendations from Colorado budtenders, from cannabis.net.

Strolling amid industrial baking machines, Frahm says she relishes the opportunity to help correct Love Oven’s downturn. She’s been working on coconut-butter THC infusions for vegan customers and looking for inspiration outside the world of weed. “We look for trends in the non-infused market,” she says. “Our seasonal products bring in new flavors to entice our customers. Our fall seasonal is a 10-milligram pumpkin-spice cookie, and winter might be a white chocolate peppermint bar.”

But it’s not just a matter of tossing a few candy canes into the mixing bowl. Frahm’s ingenuity is primarily deployed to deliver a delicious high; however, her creativity certainly doesn’t hurt the marketing department. To wit: her version of blue-light specials. This past summer she produced a strawberry-lemonade cookie, and if you bought a 100-milligram Love’s Oven edible pack, you received a 10-milligram strawberry-lemonade cookie for a penny. The customer gets to try something new; the dispensary, in theory, sells more product; and Love’s Oven is able to further distinguish itself in a competitive market.

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Love’s Oven as a whole has been thinking outside the edible-brownie box as well. This year, it partnered with Florida’s Cloud 9 Confections on a line of cannabis chocolates and rolled out its Cousin Eddie’s line, cookies that retail at a lower price ($14 to $20 for 10 treats) than the outfit’s upscale fare ($20 to $30 per 10-piece box). It also launched a line of cannabis sodas called Mirth Provisions. Maybe most critically, though, the company is extending its green tendrils into new markets in Nevada, California, and Florida.

Although she is satisfied to let the front office fret about the numbers, Frahm believes she’s prepared for a role in helping to expand the business not only at home in Colorado but also in other places. Federal law prohibits the sending of Love’s Oven products across state lines, but it can’t stop the chef from spreading her expertise. “I just want to make people happy,” she says. “When someone eats Love’s Oven edibles, they will feel happy for four to six hours at least. We make 7,000 to 10,000 packages a week, so that’s a bunch of happiness in Colorado.”

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